PLF at the Supreme Court
Pacific Legal Foundation is one of the most active and successful public interest legal organizations in filings before the Supreme Court of the United States. PLF has won an unprecedented nine cases before the High Court for its clients—a record of success unmatched by any other public interest legal organization.
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Landmark Supreme Court Victories
National Association of Manufacturers v. U.S. Department of Defense (2018)
A unanimous Court agreed with PLF and the other petitioners that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cannot shelter its “waters of the United States” rule from judicial review by arbitrarily limiting where victims can sue. PLF represented farmers, ranchers, and other landowners nationwide who joined this litigation to challenge the WOTUS rule and vindicate the vital principle that unelected bureaucrats are not above the law.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc. (2016)
The groundbreaking decision accepted PLF’s arguments that landowners have a right to seek judicial review when their property is designated as wetlands subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. The Supreme Court ruled that wetlands “jurisdictional determinations” can be immediately challenged in court. Everyone who values property rights and access to justice should welcome this historic victory.
Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District (2013)
The U.S. Supreme Court handed a victory to all property owners by ruling in favor of Coy Koontz Jr., represented by PLF attorneys, in his constitutional challenge to the heavy, unjustified demands that his family faced as a condition for a building permit. The 5-4 ruling affirms that the Fifth Amendment protects landowners from government extortion, whether the extortion is for money or any other form of property.
Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2012)
In a unanimous decision, the Court held that property owners have a right to direct, meaningful judicial review if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency effectively seizes control of their property by declaring it to be “wetlands.” The Court ruled in favor of Mike and Chantell Sackett, of Priest Lake, Idaho, who were told by EPA — and by the Ninth Circuit — that they could not get direct court review of EPA’s claim that their two-thirds of an acre parcel is “wetlands” and that they must obey a detailed and intrusive EPA “compliance” order, or be hit with fines of up to $75,000 per day.
Rapanos v. United States (2006)
This decision narrowed the scope of federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction, so that landowners whose land lacks a close connection to “navigable waters” may not be subjected to federal micromanaging of their property. The Court rejected the Army Corps of Engineers’ overly broad definition of wetlands subject to federal jurisdiction.
Palazzolo v. Rhode Island (2001)
This ruling held that government is not relieved from its Fifth Amendment obligation to provide compensation for excessive regulations on private property merely because the property has changed hands since the regulations first took effect. PLF attorneys defended landowner Anthony Palazzolo who challenged the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
Suitum v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (1997)
This ruling stopped regulators from demanding that an elderly, wheelchair-bound widow must sell government issued transferable development rights in a nonexistent market before being able to seek compensation for denial of her right to build a home.
Keller v. State Bar of California (1990)
A First Amendment case holding that a trade or professional organization to which professionals are legally bound to belong may not use their mandatory dues to fund ideologically based lobbying. Here the Court found that PLF’s attorney-clients could not be forced to pay money to the California State Bar for its political campaigns.
Nollan v. California Coastal Commission (1987)
The Supreme Court struck down a requirement that Marilyn and Patrick Nollan give away one-third of their beachfront lot in exchange for a permit to replace an old dilapidated one-story home with a new two-story home, in keeping with the neighborhood. The Court called the scheme an “out-and-out plan of extortion.” From this date forward all permit conditions imposed on land development must be related to actual harms caused by the development.
Cases Pending before the Court
Knick v. Scott Township, Pennsylvania (2018)
A town ordinance in Western Pennsylvania’s Scott Township allows unrestricted public access to any private property that might contain graves, and authorizes government searches for graves without a warrant or consent. PLF represents Rose Mary Knick, a single woman who lives alone on her property which allegedly contains some sort of ancient private burial site. PLF argues the law violates Ms. Knick’s protections under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Because a federal court refused to hear Ms. Knick’s case, PLF also challenged a procedural question that has stymied the rights of landowners across the country for more than three decades: When government violates property rights, may victims sue directly in federal court, or must they go to state courts first? On March 5, 2018, the Supreme Court announced it take up our case on the latter challenge over access to federal courts.
Weyerhaeuser v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2018)
Five years ago, federal regulators set aside over 1,500 acres in Louisiana owned by the Poitevent family and others, including Weyerhaeuser Company, as protected habitat for the dusky gopher frog—a species that has not been seen in the state for more than 50 years. Moreover, the government admits that the land in question is unsuitable for the frog, which would not survive if it were moved there. PLF represents the Poitevent family and related businesses. If our challenge is successful, this case will protect every individual’s property rights by ensuring that environmental policy is balanced, based on common sense, and that regulators are accountable to the law.
Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky (2018)
PLF client Andy Cilek fell victim to a Minnesota election law that literally strips free speech rights from the backs of voters. The law bans voters from wearing any “political” apparel at a polling place. This includes any t-shirt, button, or other items that could be construed as political, or even apparel from organizations that take political positions such as the AFL-CIO or NRA. Voters who don’t cover or remove the apparel could face prosecution and fines of up to $5,000. The High Court heard the case on February 28, 2018, and a decision is expected in June.
These cases were sent back to lower courts, based on victories in similar PLF Supreme Court cases.
Kent Recycling Services, LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2016)
Kent Recycling Services wanted to establish a solid waste landfill in Louisiana. But an overzealous Corps of Engineers determined that the property contained wetlands subject to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act. Kent disputed this claim, but lower courts rejected his lawsuit because the Corps’ determination was not “final.” A few days after PLF’s victory in Hawkes, affirming landowners’ right to their day in court, the Court in Kent Recycling sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration in light of its ruling in Hawkes.
Gerke Excavating v. United States (2006)
Gerke Excavating was fined $55,000 for grading and removing tree stumps and soil from a 5.8 acre parcel of property. In asking the Supreme Court to take the case, PLF argued that our client’s property was not subject to the Army Corps of Engineers’ wetlands jurisdiction because the property did not abut any navigable water, and any connection to a navigable water was so tenuous that the United States lacked jurisdiction. The Court sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration in light of its decision in Rapanos.
Murr v. Wisconsin (2016)
This unfortunate ruling allowed Wisconsin to treat two separate parcels as one parcel. The government combined the use and value of the Murrs’ developed parcel with their vacant parcel next door as a maneuver to avoid paying compensation for blocking the sale or development of the undeveloped parcel. In dissent, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “This is just another opportunity to gerrymander the definition of ‘private property’ to defeat a taking claim….The majority’s new framework compromises the Takings Clause as a barrier between individuals and the public interest.” However, this case has a happy ending: the Murr family successfully lobbied the Wisconsin legislature to pass a fix, protecting owners of separate, adjacent lots from having their properties combined without their consent.
Costle v. Pacific Legal Foundation (1980)
Los Angeles’ Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant needed a new permit from EPA to discharge sewage into the ocean. John B. Kilroy, Sr., a Los Angeles citizen, wanted EPA to provide a public hearing about the permit, which they didn’t do. With PLF’s help, Kilroy sued to enforce the public’s right for input on important environmental matters. The Ninth Circuit Court agreed with PLF, but the Supreme Court determined that anyone seeking a hearing must provide more factual evidence for why a hearing is needed. The silver lining: Although the High Court sided with the government in the unique circumstances of this case, they emphasized that maximizing public participation in government decision-making was an important national goal and a congressional priority.